Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
The reason why co-writer/ director Aneesh Chaganty’s SEARCHING excels where so many other films of its ilk (UNFRIENDED and UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB) utterly fail is because it forms an emotional connection with the audience right off the bat. That’s the key – caring about these characters. The medium of laptop living, or “screen life” as this relatively new cinematic movement is now being defined, where people communicate through the curated moments of each other’s lifestyles online, automatically indicates removal from reality. Whereas the aforementioned films are distant and cold, Chaganty’s film deconstructs the artifice, all whilst delivering a warm, crisply-paced, character-driven, incredibly inventive yarn. It’s a taut thriller with a hugely emotional heartbeat.
It begins on an emotional whammy – a montage of home videos, photos, emails and online appointment books, telling the Kim family history in a tone similar to UP’s tear-garnering first act montage. As the impeccably organized file folders of decades-old online memories open and close, we form a bond with the undeniably charming, loving family’s highs and lows. Dad David (John Cho) was close with his only child, Margot (Michelle La), up until the death of his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn). That’s when the usually cheery Margot began to disappear on an emotional level. But it’s not until she physically disappears that David digs into his daughter’s personal life. She goes missing after a study group on a random school night, and a worried David and highly-awarded Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) are left to make sense of Margot’s mysterious ghosting, following the digital breadcrumbs.
Groundbreaking techniques abound, demonstrated snappily when David is toggling back and forth between different open windows, attempting to make sense of it all. Chaganty, along with co-writer Sev Ohanian, give us a lot to keep our eyes trained on when viewing the desktop, whether it be the actors delivering incredibly skillful performances or the elements within the open windows. Editors and directors of virtual cinematography Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick’s work does a good portion of the heavy lifting to make this a gracefully-executed choreographed ballet. Margot’s Mac camera is, for the most part, always running, as are various computer programs. Cho’s desperate frustrations feel honest and gut-wrenchingly palpable. Both tech savvy and stupefied people can relate as David runs through a litany of trials and errors – things that would be this genre’s red herrings. He and Messing have such good chemistry during their FaceTime discussions that the audience will wish they could be in the same room (at least be physically paired together in more than one scene. It’s an impressively staged piece of modern filmmaking that has viewers enjoying the act of piecing together the puzzle.
That said, eagle-eyed audiences may pick up on a few of the minor clues a smidge too early. Whether or not this impacts its re-watchability remains to be seen. However, placing ourselves in the character’s position (which the filmmakers do a wonderfully), it’s completely understandable that a fraught father with a frantic, fragile temperament wouldn’t have noticed those same signs.
What SEARCHING does best is it goes beyond the initial gimmick, transcending its constraints. Chagnaty and Ohanian’s heartfelt, intelligent sentiments about our current communicative model shine through in ways that don’t warrant any dialogue-heavy, preachy explanation about living our lives so publicly. To do all of this, and still have the father-daughter relationship aspect resonate, in a whip-smart thriller is a feat – one courtesy of man-made tech enhancements.
SEARCHING opens in limited release on August 24 and everywhere on August 31.